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A look at area college and career readiness, chronic absenteeism

Two factors that the Alabama State Department of Education grades individual school systems on in their yearly state report card are college and career readiness and chronic absenteeism. In relation to the state as a whole, the Chambers County and Lanett City school districts scored below Alabama’s 71.46 in the former category, but above the state’s 18.28 in the latter.

A student is considered to be college and career ready by the state if they have met at least one indicator, or credential, in their four years of high school. These indicators can vary from dual enrollment classes to armed service commitment to a high enough score on the ACT.  Chambers County schools earned an overall 63 while Lanett earned a 53.97.

While they are under the state average, Lanett High School Principal Jennifer Boyd said that they are working on programs to combat this reality.

“There is a course called workforce essentials, so if [students] decide to go straight into the workforce after high school, then they should be able to hold down a job and should already have those transferrable skills,” Boyd said. “Not only do we focus on the academic importance, but this is a focus for us as well.”

Boyd explained that the workforce essentials course is just one of the resources in the school that is there for students to develop their skills for life after primary education. Lanett High students have access to career advisement, job shadowing and career fairs, as well as a curriculum-wide focus on computer literacy and ‘plain old transferable skills’ like decision-making, teamwork, dependability and punctuality.

Superintendent of Lanett City Schools Phillip Johnson said that all students coming into the ninth grade are required to take part in the school’s Army ROTC program, something that he said helps build “soft skills” and sets those who continue with the program up with a career.

Students attending Valley High School are able to attend this ROTC program with Lanett High students being allowed to attend the Chambers County Career Technical Center. Career Tech students from both districts are able to earn state credentials by completing coursework and certification programs like WorkKeys and ServSafe, both of which are favorable to employers when the students graduate.

As for chronic absenteeism, the state deems any student as fitting this category if they have more than 15 days out of class, excused or otherwise. While Lanett’s 13.6 percent and Chambers County’s 14.76 percent of students being considered chronically absent may seem high, it is under the state’s 18.28 percent, and local administrators took issue with how it was graded in the first place.

“We looked at students who had excessive unexcused absences and worked with them on a one-on-one basis, but it’s never been looked at from the district or the school level,” said Chambers County Superintendent Dr. Kelli Hodge. “The words ‘chronic absenteeism’ have never been defined in that way until they were defined on the report card in 2017.”

The major issue that administrators had with the score was its lack of exceptions for absences that could not be avoided. Students out for severe medical conditions and excused reasons like college visits and gifted program field trips are counted against them in terms of chronic absenteeism.

For students who are simply not showing up to class, Lanett has a parent liaison and Chambers County has hired a truancy officer from the Sheriff’s Office to help combat that.

“We have seen [excessive truancy] grow each year,” Hodge said in a previous interview. “We try to keep our overhead costs down as much as possible and have just been handling this issue as we could, but we had to prioritize, and most of the time the day-to-day operations would take precedent. This is going to help us be able to combat this need that we have identified.”

Both school systems are also offering incentives for students to want to come to school, such as club days and electives. Lanett administrators said that while they are doing what they can to help students show up daily and improve the district’s score, there is only so much they can do in that regard. 

“We are doing so many things to remove barriers,” Boyd said. “Let’s say it’s a motivational issue, each student has a teacher mentor, we have student advising groups, we don’t just rely on the system in place to contact parents if their student is absent, we are personally reaching out. At the end of the day, the parent has to want an education for their child. We do what we can, but it is not something we can change.”